Saturday 5 March 2016


The first of a two-part look at two Regency caricature exhibitions'High Spirits: The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson' at Queens Gallery, and the British Museum's 'Bonaparte and the British: Prints and Propaganda in the Age of Napoleon'. (They're both now over. You guessed that part already, right?)

“Man is the only creature endowed with the power of laughter. Is he not also the only one who deserves to be laughed at?”
- Rowlandson

Looking Back At the Golden Age

The Regency era is often dubbed the Golden Age of English caricature, and it may be true in that it was both great and founding. Art dealer Thomas Tegg boasted of possessing a 'Caricature Warehouse', suggesting a period stuffed to the gills with bombast and bile. While no less a fellow than the Guardian's Steve Bell has said it was James Gillray who invented political cartooning as we now know it. (A fact which stays true from either end of the quality spectrum. Back when I was making my scrawly autobiographical comics, my self-image was largely half-inched from Gillray's Pitt.)

Perhaps there was the perfect combination of talent, opportunity and events. Packed into a few short years came the Regency crisis, the French revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars. (I tend to think I lived through a golden age of interesting times in the Thatcherite Eighties, but their turbulence pales by comparison.) All of which didn't just have a political impact but an effect upon the national identity. (So please note what follows is more concerned with how the prints focused and reflected popular attitudes than with their historical accuracy. Fairness was not their primary drive. It shall also hopelessly conflate London, England and Britain, just because people of the time did.)

The prints were not normally reproduced in magazines, but kept as standalone items. They were more often passed around than hung. (In fact the often teeny text would seem to presuppose this.) With recent innovations in transferring images, scenes were sometimes reproduced on mugs and jugs. Gillray's 'Very Slippy-Weather' (1808, below) is set outside Mrs. Humphrey's shop which sold his prints. The foreground figure taking a pratfall looks like an excuse, the focus is really on the works in the windows – recognisably his. The glass-pressed crowd suggest these were like the Tumblr graphics of their day, loose and readily transportable.

Yet, however much we might want to romantically imagine some precursor to the anti-authoritarianism of underground comics, Mrs. Humphrey's shop was in wealthy Bond Street and it's prints priced beyond the pockets of regular folk. Indeed one of the exhibitions taking place in Queens Gallery, part of Buckingham Palace, is indicative of the number of nobility who collected them.

Its Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and (to a lesser extent) George Cruickshank who are usually regarded as the stars of this era. Contemporaries, even born in the same year, Gillray and Rowlandson worked so often under pseudonyms its hard to fully catalogue their output, but both were extraordinarily prolific. Our focus will initially be on Rowlandson, principally because – as its title suggests – the British Museum show takes the story up from the later Napoleonic wars. But also in part because Gillray's star can shine so bright he obscures others.

Both men had a talent for combining the highly individualised with the deeply archetypal; we feel that each person has been caught square in their pincers even as they seem to epitomise a general type. Figures have a liveliness, a solidity to them; whatever the absurdity of their situation they seem to come alive before you.

Rowlandson's great gift was for caricature. While he'd sometimes barely bother to sketch in backgrounds, often even in his crowd scenes every figure is individualised. His 'Sketches at an Oratorio' (1800, below) merely shows a series of heads, strung along the thin through-line that they're all reacting to the same oratorio. But that should make them sketchbook doodles, a reserve army of players waiting to be inserted into scenes. Yet each is so well-realised that the work's effective in it's own right.

Though satirical prints dominated Rowlandson's work, he also produced more general comic images and scenic views. (He may have been pushed towards the more lucrative prints by his perpetual ability to get himself into debt, his gambling sessions lasting up to thirty-six hours a stretch.) These vary in interest, but tend to the more staid such as the respectful 'King George Returning From Hunting Through Eton' (c. 1800), villagers dutifully watching their monarch pass.

Yet when he starts to populate these scenes with his stock English cartoony characters, Rowlandson starts to look more like a forerunner of Giles. Marina Vaizey of the Arks Desk describes him as “more a comedian than a satirist… motivated more by affection than by rage”. While the more venomous pen of Gillray would seem to begat the plasticated figures of Scarfe.

The Arrival of Allegory

Like Steve Bell and other later artists, Rowlandson borrowed heavily from the great satirist print-maker William Hogarth. (Who had died fifteen years before Rowlandson began work.) The show puts together Rowlandson's 'A Grand Battle Between the Famous English Cock and Russian Hen' (1791, below) and it's inspiring piece, Hogarth's 'The Cockpit' (1759, also below). They show both Hogarth's influence on the younger artists, and how much they moved things on.

First we might notice the leap into colour – enabled by advances in production, if still applied by hand. Those bright blocks of solid colour look eye-catching and cheerily gaudy. (Though black-and-white alternatives existed for the budget buyer.) To our eyes this makes them look more proto-modern than Hogarth, they make the work look populist and with it more scurrilous and salacious.

More importantly Hogarth depicts a scene, while Rowlandson's interest is allegory. He places the fighting cock and hen neatly at the centre of the composition, then shows the bet money placed on the fighting table itself. (Something they're unlikely to have done in real life.) Hogarth's background and jumble of foreground figures are simply done away with to add emphasis to the central figures and fighting birds – we need to be looking at what we need to be looking at. But most of all, the cock and hen are given the grafted faces of George and Catherine the Great. We now take this kind of transmogrified allegory so for granted, at least in political cartoons, it's almost a surprise when we discover it had to be devised.

Similarly, in 'A Peep into Friar Bacon's Study' (1784, above) doesn't meaningfully distinguish the apparition of the three hovering discs from the room setting. Those watching disdainfully through the left door seem able to see them. It followed that real-life symbolic occasions, processions and ceremonies, were often used, lending themselves so easily to both tableaus and symbolic depiction - for example 'The York Dilly, or the Triumph of Innocence' (1809, below). Everything represents - a rickety rowing boat stands for the ship of state, a stiff-backed chair is the seat of office.

Starting With Speech

In another difference to Hogarth, Rowlandson introduces speech balloons to 'English Cock and Russian Hen'. And overall, this is about the time they emerge. However, these are given a somewhat different use to the one with we're now familiar. This is manifest even in their design - they're not our bubbles but billowing trails, with no requirement for the writing to remain horizontal. They look like a revival of the Medieval speech scroll; though divorced from its original religious context it still has the same sense of proclamation – as if the speaker is reading aloud from a held scroll.

At other times (for example in 'The York Dilly') they're looping trails, suggesting opera arias. And speech often takes on sing-song patterns, or attempts doggerel verse. What's said is almost always expository. They're used for speechifying rather than speech, announcements rather than dialogue. They become verbalised labels ('labels' being the commonest term for them at the time), an accoutrement of the characters as much as pose or clothing.

As mentioned earlier us political types want to see in these prints political radicalism. Similarly us comic fans want to find in them a gestation, the medium we recognise being born. Yet the use of speech balloons is haphazard, suggesting they were employed more as an extemporised device, for times when the pictures alone couldn't be left to do the talking. Gillray's prints are often festooned with intra-image writing (labels on bottles, the covers of pamphlets etc) without a single speech balloon in sight. (For example 'French Generals Retiring On Account of Their Health', 1799, below, or 'The Handwriting Upon the Wall', 1803.) Without any meaningful sense of interchange between characters, the prospect of arranging panels into a narrative sequence is still some way off.

'Of Labels, Loops and Bubbles' by Thierry Smoldern from 'Comic Art' 8 is a good article on this sort of thing, though now tricky to track down. It convincingly explains why this generation took to balloons while Hogarth didn't – and it has to do with that cock becoming Catherine the Great. Here's a snatch:

”The vast majority of satirical pictures which appeared in the English-speaking world were allegorical in nature... In such a context the reason why the labels cannot be read the same way as our modern speech balloons becomes clearer. Nothing is alive or natural in allegorical constructs: they exist in a timeless and spaceless dimension, in which no living sound will ever travel. How could metaphors freely dialogue between themselves like characters in a comic strip?

”...It is important, when one wants to retrace the historical changes behind a familiar cultural construct like the speech balloon, to understand the older avatars in their own terms, as positive entities – and not as the imperfect intermediaries leading to the achieved form (i.e., the form with which we are comfortable.)”

England as a Mismatched Couple

Rowlandson often employed what the Queens Gallery calls “mismatched couples”, most clearly in 'Doctor Convex and Lady Concave' (1802, above), used as the poster image (up top). 'The Last Dreg' (1811, below) is perhaps another variation on this, with the gluttonous fellow oblivious to his imminent spearing by the skeletal figure of death. This time the second figure is not alongside the first but above and behind, ambiguously somewhere between coming down on and emerging up from him.

And let's remember during the Regency the bums jostling on the throne were themselves a mismatched couple. George III was ailing and concerns arose he was becoming too unwell to rule, spurring plans for his son (later George IV) to step in as Regent. False alarms rang before this finally happened, spiking concerns instead of closing the deal. Robert Southey has said this era...

“...saw the end of a more pious and reserved society, and gave birth of a more frivolous, ostentatious one. This change was influenced by the Regent himself, who was kept entirely removed from the machinations of politics and military exploits... leaving him with the pursuit of pleasure as his only outlet, as well as his sole form of rebellion against what he saw as disapproval and censure in the form of his father.”

The figures of King and Regent were, at least in the popular mind, then duplicated in Parliament. The King favoured the Tory leader William Pitt, while the Prince associated with the Whig Charles Fox. These were commonly depicted as beaky and rakishly thin versus louche and girthsome. See for example Rowlandson's 'Billy Lackbeard and Charley Blackbeard Playing at Football' (1784, below) which plays up their physical dissimilarity by bookending them in the composition.

Though their frames make them opposites, they as readily mark them out as targets. Fox is depicted dropping playing cards (and was often show brandishing dice boxes in the place of justice's scales), yet Pitt is a gangly youth disparagingly called Lackbeard. Virtue exists on neither side, each merely carries his own particular problems.

For example, in Gillray's 'Midas Transmuting All into Gold Paper' (1797, above) Pitt is shown as the miserly anti-Midas, hoarding gold in his locked belly (absurdly bloated against his otherwise scrawny frame), while spitting and shitting only paper money. (The context being that gold payments had been suspended due to the cost of war, leading to paper money being issued for the first time.) In other words while the louche Fox will probably raise taxes to spend all your money, Pitt would raise them just to keep it.

This reflects something I said of the Tate's 'Rude Britannia' show: “It posited two Britains perpetually at war with one another, the upright and spendthrift versus the bawdy and licentious.” It reflects Shakespeare's 'Henry IV', except with Prince Hal and Falstaff united into a single figure. (The scene where Hal takes his father for dead and crowns himself is almost a forerunner of the Regency crisis, and is almost echoed in Rowlandson's 'Filial Piety' of 1788.) But even Shakespeare may just be a way-station on this journey, with the figures going back further still.

Doctor Convex/Lady Concave... the King/The Prince Regent... Pitt/ Fox... ultimately, these figures refer back to Lent and Carnival, as shown in the famous Pieter Breugel painting 'The Fight Between Carnival and Lent'. Carnival, sometimes called King Carnival and as the name suggests almost invariably male, represents the Jungian archetype most commonly known as “the big fat party animal”. While Lent is a gaunt, aged and devout woman. Of all the oppositions fat to thin, gluttony to abstinence, is perhaps central. Carnival was chiefly concerned with feasting and Lent with sticking to a plain diet.

And yet there's nothing moralistic to Lent and Carnival, not at least when they appeared in folk culture - they merely mark the ebb and flow between the seasons. Despite the 'Fight' in Breguel's title they're less at war than involved in some ritualised dance, both well-practiced in their steps. They're like the sun and moon, complementary opposites whose clashes occur as part of an underlying harmony, where we we need both to navigate by.

And it's this element which is lost in the age of caricature. Now opposites do not glide by but collide. While its doubtful there's a single cause for this, the arrival of Protestantism probably struck the killer blow. Catholicism allowed for measured indulgence, between this time and that, and provided you dutifully did your penances afterwards. Protestantism didn't. The only way to enjoy such things was vicariously. Figures which had once been safety valves became targets. The Prince Regent drank, gambled and whored so you didn't have to, like a rock star or merchant banker of today. As Wikipedia comments “the gap in the hierarchy of society was so great that those of the upper classes could be viewed by those below as wondrous and fantastical fiction, something entirely out of reach yet tangibly there.”

This may also help to answer an otherwise perplexing question – why was this golden age so British? Why were there not comparable prints not going on the other side of the channel? France would seem to have had the same combination of opportunity and events; Paris a print centre to rival London, while its lively political landscape really speaking for itself. Prints were produced. Yet the examples given in the British Museum show, such as Jean Louis Arguad de Borges' 'Gare a ta Coronne, et Deffens Tes Cotes' (1803) lack the same bite. The companion book to the British Museum exhibition, by Tim Clayton and Sheila O'Connell, even suggests political prints were a successful British export. Perhaps it was this particular set of social tensions in Britain that made the prints simultaneously an expression of them and a release from them.

England Personified

Given this emphasis on division it shows the peculiarly self-contradictory nature of popular culture that at the same time John Bull should arise. This personification of Britain was stout of heart and wide of girth, with a waistcoat never quite finding its way around his midriff. He was of course a patriotic totem. In the unsigned 'John Bull Viewing the Preparations on the French Coast' (1803), his buckled feet are planted on English soil as if the two are interchangeable. In Charles Williams' 'The Governor of Europe Stopped in his Career' (1803, shown below on a commemorative mug) he pluckily chops off Napoleon's intruding toe, crying “Paws off, Pompey!”

Yet he as often represents the nation as distinct from the political class, and can be shown at the mercy of scheming politicians. In Cruikshank's 'Preparing For War' (1815, below) he's portrayed literally as a bull, a fatted calf about to be sacrificed, beheaded by an axe labelled 'New War Taxes'. “Have I not bled for so many years in your service?” he cries “Will you now take my life?”

Intriguingly, Rowlandson would seem himself almost a double for John Bull. He was not a political figure, despite making his living from his satires. (Or quite possibly because of them, for he'd switch sides at the sight of better pay or if necessary work under pseudonyms.) But he may have himself united these two figures he depicted so often, described by the show as “a convivial man who enjoyed gambling and drinking. But he also worked extremely hard.”

Cruickshank, meanwhile, perhaps best illustrates the short-lived nature of the Regency. Though often seen as part of a triumvirate with Gillray and Rowlandson, he was thirty-five years their junior. Like both of them, he drank his way through the era. But in the 1840s, after their deaths and with the onset of Victoriana, he took to temperance with the zeal of the converted. His later work has an instructive nature which if anything looks back to Hogarth. The Tate's afore-mentioned 'Rude Britannia' featured his 'Worship of Bacchus' (1862), whose gargantuan size boils down to the simple message “don't drink and... look, just don't drink, okay?”

The Regency era seems to snag the popular conception of British history, a dandified jam sandwiched between the dour dry bred of Cromwell's Puritanism and Victoria's perpetual unamusedness. Not seen as a foundation of modern Britain but an aberration, it might appear strange that this is when modern political cartooning was devised. And yet its possible that the reverse is true, that we've never really left this time. With all the populist Tory rhetoric about “hard-working families” versus “lifestyle choice” skiving chavs, doesn't it feel like people have become hard-wired to swallow all that? As if the stuff which made us us all happened then?

Coming soon: Napoleon takes the stage...

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